From racino to unions, Legislature is in budget race
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Legislature is racing toward a self-imposed Friday budget deadline amid protesters fearing Wisconsin-type anti-union laws, Republicans bucking their party chairman by proposing racinos and key lawmakers saying their budget plans will not be finished by Friday.
"Welcome to Phase One of a yet-to-be-determined number of phases, I fear," Chairman Jim Abeler of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee said Monday as he introduced his budget plan.
The Anoka Republican said his proposal will change before reaching Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton's desk. Abeler predicted final health care spending for poor, disabled and elderly Minnesotans will not be decided until the constitutionally mandated May 23 legislative adjournment date.
Others around the Capitol said they wonder if Dayton and Republican legislative leaders can reach agreement by then, perhaps forcing a summer government shutdown.
Monday's budget activity was fast and furious, including House Republicans saying they will adjust their budget outline.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the change empties a budget reserve where legislators normally would find flood-relief money once expected floods hit communities around the state.
"Water is rising across the state," Thissen said as floodwaters approach many communities this week.
Among Monday's announcements was one by several Republican lawmakers behind a bill to add casinos, known as racinos, at the state's two horse-racing tracks, both in Twin Cities' suburbs. An estimated $250 million every-two-years profit from the state-owned video slot machines would fund efforts to gain and retain jobs statewide.
A racino supporter is Chairman Rod Hamilton of the House agriculture committee. The Mountain Lake Republican said racinos would be good for the state's horse industry,
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, also likes the bill, saying his constituents do not think it is fair that only American Indian casinos benefit from casinos.
Indian tribes oppose the bill, as they have every time the bill has been debated over the years.
"This is going to be devastating to the tribes," said Executive Director John McCarthy of the Minnesota Indian Gaming Association. He said it has a better chance of passing this year.
Republicans backing the racino bill are bucking state GOP Chairman Tony Sutton and some of their legislative leaders, who say they oppose any new revenue for state government, including gambling.
Abeler raised questions about new revenue when he said his health and human services bill cannot be decided until revenue issues are answered.
Abeler's bill funds health and related services for 800,000 elderly, disabled and poor Minnesotans. It would cut $1.6 billion from what had been expected to be spent in the next two years. It would spend $10.2 billion, about $800 million less than Dayton proposes.
Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that Abeler is making "dramatic changes" in how health-care money is spent, but people testifying about those changes this week will have just two minutes to make their case, because committees must pass their bills by Friday.
Abeler said he does not know how many Minnesotans would lose health-care coverage or see reduced levels of state funding under his bill, but about 7,200 adults would lose state-subsidized MinnesotaCare insurance coverage.
The money talk attracted a crowd of state union members, who protested bills heard by a Senate committee to reduce state workers' salaries 6 percent and force employees to pay more for their benefits.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 leaders say 1,500 workers will converge today for one of the largest rallies ever inside the Capitol. While union members visit the Capitol every year at this time, the 2011 trek is gaining more attention in light of Wisconsin's state union strife and some attempts in Minnesota to adopt similar policies limiting union powers.
Many of those protesting Monday were from the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees. Union Executive Director Jim Monroe testified that the salary-reduction bill senators considered "would cause public employees to fall further behind in the earnings gap between the public and private sectors."
"One thing MAPE employees are not are overcompensated government employees," Monroe said.
Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.